Blockbusters: Creating Winning Content Against All Odds

Originally written in March 2017

The unlimited choice the digital world brought was meant to revolutionise cultural markets, with people liberated to enjoy what they really – really – loved, not what mass producers made available; what we got was the “blockbuster effect”, with digital media helping winners get even bigger and stifling the chances of newer or less well-known content. Looking back at 2017, however, we can see lessons in the outlying cultural successes succeeding against those odds; lessons that help us as advertisers understand how to ensure what we create gets attention.

We were told that the digital age would be different, that the choice it enabled would allow shoppers to gravitate towards the products they truly wanted. As Chris Anderson noted, if digital technology lowered marginal production cost and increased inventory capacity, but people maintained “strong and heterogenous preferences”, those in market would be able to quickly find more relevant products for their needs than in the pre-digital age; a rebellion against the popular, mass-produced and common was inevitable, and personal choice would diversify categories.

It was compelling, but wrong. Recent history has in fact shown the opposite, that increased choice concentrates consumption inside categories amongst fewer options; in the digital age, the winners are bigger than ever. As The Economist has observed, this is most obvious in both film and music: the share of consumption accounted for by the biggest hits in both has increased over time, in spite of increased choice. In film, the top 1% of box office hits now account for over 25% of box office takings; in 1997, that number was only 8%. In music, the pace of change has been quicker, with the top 1,000 most streamed songs accounting for 18.8% of streaming volume in 2015 and 23% in 2017. Stepping back even slightly shows how choice concentrates music consumption: in 2007, there were 3.9m individual singles bought at least once, 91% selling less than 100 copies and a full 24% selling only once; in 2016, songs bought more than doubled to 8.7m, yet a full 96% sold less than 100 and 40% sold once. Or look at apps, where the market meets Anderson’s criteria almost perfectly (existing as a purely digital enterprise): younger people, who use more apps, also concentrate that app usage into the very biggest. It’s a blockbuster effect, not a long tail, brought on by the endless trending algorithms that sit at the heart of digital technology, the transparency of quality and the fact that, especially in cultural markets, we buy simply to be a part of a bigger conversation.

This is problematic for marketers because, as Karen Nelson-Field of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has shown, attention is one of the most precious commodities in communication: the more actively attentive your audience, the more likely they are to buy. Yet we know that daily media consumption has increased, up from 9 hours in 2010 to 11 by 2016, and we can assume both the supply of advertising content (the amount created) and individual daily ad exposures (the amount promoted) have also increased; it seems safe to assume that this same blockbuster effect is likely to reduce the number of campaigns or pieces of advertising content people are willing to give their attention, just as it has done in music and film and apps. Following this logic, it could well be that the decline in long-term advertising effectiveness, which mirrors the increase of media consumption (fuelled by increases in mobile penetration after 2010), is partly fuelled by this oversupply of advertising.

Nevertheless, whilst the blockbuster effect appears real, it isn’t fatal. Popular culture in 2017 was, in many ways, a perfect reflection of the broader trend, dominated by the gargantuan hits of businesses like Disney who have nurtured famous franchises and brands. In film, every one of the world’s biggest ten films relied on existing intellectual property (the only film that wasn’t a remake of, or a sequel to, another film was Wonder Woman, which was a remake of a TV show), whilst in music the biggest songs were mostly from artists on their second or third albums. On both sides of the Atlantic Ed Sheeran’s third album was the year’s musical blockbuster; in the UK, where his album was the year’s highest seller, he had 11 separate songs enter the top 10, music’s one-man equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the world of apps, 8 of the 2016’s 10 most downloaded were in the 2017 top 10, and one of the two new entrants, Uber, was hardly new. Yet some newer cultural products broke through the inertia: Get Out, an entirely original horror film, won an Oscar nomination and ended as one of America’s 20 biggest films of 2017, four artists (Lil Uzi Vert, Migos, Daddy Yankee & Luis Fonsi and Cardi B) who had never previously had a platinum album or single, or had a single finish as one of America’s top 100 highest selling saw songs end in 2017’s top 25, and one app (Bitmoji) came from nowhere to end as Apple’s most downloaded.

Alongside a large dollop of luck, the way in which these cultural products succeeded largely rested on four shared traits, which give us new lessons for how to get people’s attention with your content as choice explodes. They mainly emerged from a core community, nurtured over time; they were often the product of wilful experimentation in pursuit of quality; they were created with people who possessed unique, incremental audiences and they embraced new forms of curation.

Most clear is the long-term importance of a core community to the production of successful content, contrary to advertising theory. Almost every breakthrough success of 2017 came from artists or genres with a previously small but engaged base: Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s Despacito – now YouTube’s most streamed song of all time – came from two artists with huge Latin American followings and multiple Latin Grammys; Lil Uzi Vert, whose song XO TOUR Llif3 was America’s 13th biggest song of the year, was the most popular rapper on Soundcloud, which now functions as a breeding ground for Hip-Hop’s avant garde, before releasing his major label debut; Get Out, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, built from its production studio Blumhouse’s horror base. In all cases, these creators had patiently served their respective communities over time, building a base of advocates that would in each case serve as a launching pad for their breakout hits. They couldn’t guarantee a hit of the magnitude they achieved, but they knew it’d always have an audience.

However, those breakout hits were themselves a product of experimentation in pursuit of higher quality rather than repetition in pursuit of higher satisfaction. Each creator recognised the opportunity that a core community provides – a forgiving freedom, a chance for risk – and used that safety to produce weird, controversial and ultimately better content that broke through the inertia. Lil Uzi Vert used Soundcloud to host the music he’d created over Facetime in a hotel room whilst on tour, an unlikely mix of “the goth-tinged emotion of… Marilyn Manson” and Atlanta hip-hop that ended up in 10 separate “top ten best singles” lists of 2017. (Critical acclaim runs through the other three breakthrough hits in music: Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow was deemed the best song of 2017 by multiple critics, Migos’ Bad and Boujee featured on an album judged to be one of the year’s best and Despacito was deemed one of the best Latin songs of all time.) Jordan Peele created Get Out for Blumhouse, Jason Blum’s maverick movie studio that prides itself the pursuit of brilliant original stories: it bans “comps”, the industry method of pitching stories that are “like x mixed with y”, to avoid homogeneity; allows storytellers maximum freedom in the creative process; deliberately limits budgets and releases to ensure boldness; multiplies its storytelling platforms to maximise the chances of hitting on one great idea. And before Get Out, which achieved almost universal acclaim (99% on Rotten Tomatoes), it struck gold with films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, Whiplash and Split, all acclaimed despite frequently unusual content and low budgets.   

Blumhouse, though operating on small budgets, demonstrates the value in creating collaboratively with those who have their own audience. The studio has prized novel storytelling for a core community of genre fans, but finds recognisable actors who bring distinct audiences, whether its comedy actors like Jason Bateman, blockbuster stars James McAvoy, indie darlings like Ethan Hawke or popstars like Jennifer Lopez. Despacito, created by two Latino superstars, featured Justin Bieber on its remix; Migos, an Atlanta trap trio, collaborated with Lil Uzi Vert, from Philadelphia. Bitmoji, long a social curiosity, was integrated into Snapchat, giving it access to a new audience. Each set of creators formed an audience Venn diagram, with enough overlap for credible transmission but unique pools of fans from each side who would never otherwise experience the other’s creation.

Lastly, each leant on new types of social curator to get to their audience. Curation has always been a fundamental part of any market – whether it’s the Top 40 in music, the Sunday Times Bestseller List or simply the role of a supermarket in deciding what goes on the shelf in front of you – but today the role is being played more by the individual people we trust and less by faceless corporations, which these creators understood. Successful rappers like Migos and Cardi B have relied to hugely influential – and human-curated – playlists like Spotify’s RapCaviar and Apple Music’s Hip-Hop: A List to circumvent the outdated radio charts, and benefitted from the support of more established personalities. Cardi B was feted by Kevin Hart and Migos – who like many hip-hop acts benefitted from the early endorsement of a bigger star, in this case Drake, who remixed one of their early singles and gave them publicity amongst a broader audience – saw their single Bad and Boujee reached number one after the actor and musician Donald Glover shouted them out during his Golden Globes speech.

That these four qualities are at the heart of breakthrough success even in today’s more demanding world should be no surprise. We know, for example, that social proof is a powerful driver of both quality perceptions and choice, so it should make sense that despite advertising best practice, there remains a benefit to nurturing a core community of fans over time – despite higher direct costs. Indeed, when you look at almost every hip-hop artist today – and 2017 was also the year in which hip-hop overtook rock as the most listened to genre in America – what you see is a career built on the over-serving core fans; Atlanta’s Gucci Mane, one of the most popular rappers in the US, has released 72 mixtapes and albums in his career, and 12 since his release from prison in 2016. Yet the best iterate not to milk the most committed, but to achieve the extremes of quality that Karen Nelson-Field has previously shown to have produced the most shared and talked about content. And, like Nelson-Field also requires, they take distribution seriously – so seriously that they create with the distributors themselves, building content with people who can contribute a unique audience of their own. Finally, we can also see that launching your content into the sea of culture before us is risky, especially because algorithms aren’t fully trusted to navigate us to the best – which makes the power of engaging with the new generation of curators, and their platforms, key.

In conclusion then, the explosion of digital choice – especially in cultural markets – has led to a concentration of consumption, the “blockbuster effect” that controls music and film consumption today. This blockbuster effect presents advertisers – who create content for a world in which there has never been so many ads or ad exposures in human history – a very real danger, especially because we know effectiveness over time is declining. But it is not fatal, and the breakthroughs of 2017 can demonstrate how to break its spell.

Charlie Ebdy